It has become utterly apparent now that one must not mess with Steve Yzerman. The Tampa Bay Lightning GM may not have the most experience in the NHL, but he has become a quick study in the Art of the Upper Hand. 'Stevie Y' proved this again yesterday when he held on to suspended left winger Jonathan Drouin at the trade deadline.
Simply put, it is not wise to tangle with Yzerman.
I'm sure there are some folks out there who believe Yzerman missed an opportunity by holding on to Drouin instead of trading the exiled youngster yesterday, but Yzerman didn't feel like any of the offers were good enough. Here's how the GM put it to the Tampa Bay Times:
"If you take any message out of it — we're going to do what's right for the hockey team," he said. "We're not going to be forced into doing something we're not comfortable with."
Yzerman also noted that Drouin is welcome to re-join the organization and at this point, that feels like the best-case scenario for both parties. Yes, Drouin would likely have to prove himself with AHL Syracuse first, but having known the 20-year-old for years now, Drouin is fundamentally a good kid with a positive outlook. He has gone through the ringer early in his pro career and that can be tough for a player who cruised through junior.
Keep in mind, Drouin only joined the Quebec League's Halifax Mooseheads midway through the 2011-12 campaign. Just after he turned 17 that year, he posted 26 points in 17 playoff games as The Herd upset Patrick Roy's Quebec Remparts in the quarterfinal, even though Quebec was up 3-0 in the series.
The next season, Drouin and returning buddies Nathan MacKinnon and Zach Fucale went all the way, winning the league and the Memorial Cup. Drouin was named CHL player of the year for his efforts. For his final 'Q' campaign, Drouin once again eviscerated the regular season before taking Halifax to the semifinal (along with Fucale and Winnipeg's Nikolaj Ehlers).
The pro ranks have been more of a challenge and gaining Tampa coach Jon Cooper's trust has been a tough exercise. Would it be easier for Drouin to start again fresh with another coach and another franchise? Perhaps. But do elite hockey players ever prefer the easy route? That doesn't seem like their style.
Yzerman knows this, because he didn't jump straight into the GM's chair in Tampa. He spent four years as a vice president with the Detroit Red Wings, learning from iconic GM Ken Holland, future Dallas GM Jim Nill and the well-regarded Jim Devellano, among others.
"Steve did it the right way," one player agent told me. "He learned in Detroit, he put in the work, he was a student. He's a classy guy and I would give him a glowing assessment for his time in Tampa."
Yzerman's firm stance on Drouin – suspending the talented left winger in late January for not reporting to an AHL game with Syracuse – has not hurt his franchise so far, as the Lightning have gone 19-6-0 since Drouin was originally sent down.
Nor has the circus around pending unrestricted free agent and superstar Steven Stamkos impeded the Bolts. That was another tempestuous situation and there had been great speculation that Stamkos would be dealt this season, but Yzerman poured water on that fire two weeks ago.
Last time I checked, negotiations with the Lightning captain were still being held incredibly close to the vest by both sides. And yes, Tampa Bay could lose Stamkos for nothing this summer, which would seem to be a wicked loss of a premier asset (they could trade his rights before the draft, but you wouldn't get much in return – maybe a mid-round pick or prospect at best).
But what if Tampa Bay wins the Stanley Cup this year? It's not out of the realm of possibility, especially given how hot they are right now. If Yzerman has done the long-term calculus and figured Stamkos would cost too much, maybe the master plan is to simply go for broke this season, let Stamkos walk and concentrate on Victor Hedman, Ben Bishop and The Triplets as your future.
Whether you agree with this or not, you can't accuse Yzerman of being soft. This is the same man who snubbed one of his own players, Martin St-Louis, for Canada's Olympic team, only to bring the right winger back on to the team when Stamkos got injured. And when St-Louis demanded a trade, Yzerman got fair value from the New York Rangers in the form of Ryan Callahan (still with the Bolts, while St-Louis is retired) and draft picks.
It's funny. When you start to list all the bomb scares that Yzerman has dealt with in his short Tampa tenure, they do seem to have only one constant – Yzerman himself. But throughout that time, the Bolts have remained one of the East's top teams and they already have one Cup final appearance during this period.
So it may not be pretty, but the results on the ice speak for themselves. We have learned very quickly that Yzerman has a vision of how things should go in his organization and he is not going to break away from that for anybody.